David Bowie Faces Reality

“It’s difficult to foresee anything other than a huge calamity in the industry itself,” David Bowie predicted to me in 2003. “And, as I’ve believed for a long time now, live shows will come to dominate in a new kind of way again.”

Yes, few rock stars are more sagacious or prescient than the Dukester. And with fans biting their nails over the January 26 release of his new two-CD live set, A Reality Tour (ISO/Columbia/Legacy), here’s an interview I conducted with him prior to the release of his related studio album, Reality.

[Go here for the never-before-published, 6,600-word transcript of the interview, which took place July 9, 2003.]

Of rock ‘n’ roll’s three punk progenitors – David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed – one could easily argue that Bowie remains the most enduring. While legendary genre- (and gender-) benders Pop and Reed are still creating new music, neither can match Bowie’s startling pace, continued accreditation or impressive sales.

Beyond that, the Thin White Duke has turned younger listeners onto his music through recent partnerships with Moby and Dave Grohl, while handsome, recently released deluxe-edition reissues have enshrined classic works like The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and Black Tie White Noise.

Reality, which reaches stores on September 16, is the latest checkpoint in Bowie’s ongoing, heroic career. It marks his seventh studio release in 10 years (with Pop and Reed totaling less than that number combined). Last year’s Heathen not only accrued more than a million copies in sales; one gem featuring Pete Townshend on guitar, “Slow Burn,” even garnered Bowie a Grammy nomination for Best Male Rock Vocal.

According to Columbia Senior VP of Marketing and Media Larry Jenkins, the set demonstrates the artist’s unwavering ability to create distinctly fresh material.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that David’s body of work is among the most highly regarded in all of popular music,” he tells ICE. “What amazes me is that he continues to create such great music in such a prolific manner, all without repeating himself. Reality is singularly Bowie but sounds completely different from Heathen – which he released just last year – or virtually any other Bowie album.”

Bowie’s 26th album finds him hooking up once again with venerable producer Tony Visconti. The full track list: “New Killer Star,” “Pablo Picasso,” “Never Get Old,” “The Loneliest Guy,” “Looking for Water,” “She’ll Drive the Big Car,” “Days,” “Fall Dog Bombs the Moon,” “Try Some, Buy Some,” “Reality” and “Bring Me to the Disco King.”

A limited-edition version of the album will also be issued on September 16 with enhanced packaging and a bonus disc featuring two unreleased songs – “Your Turn to Drive” and “Fly” – plus his contribution to the Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle soundtrack, the 2003 version of “Rebel Rebel.”

“Let me tell you, it’s probably my best album since [1980’s] Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps),” Bowie jokingly tells ICE. “I had to throw that in, because it seems every album I put out in the ’90s, at the time of release, was called the best album I’ve put out since Scary Monsters.”

In all seriousness, he says that, “This one was written here at home in downtown New York. So it has that energy to it, and it’s higher energy than Heathen. Although I must stress that it’s not my ‘New York Album.’ There wasn’t a conceptual through-line or anything like that. It is, really, a random collection of songs I’ve been writing over the last while, plus a couple covers I really liked.”

While rumors have abounded that red-hot pop production squad The Matrix was involved with the album, Bowie replies: “That was an ugly rumor. I was very flattered to see in a magazine that they really wanted to work with me more than anything else – that’s really lovely. But no, it was a Tony Visconti and David Bowie production.”

Consisting primarily of newly written songs, the medley also reaches back to one penned more than 10 years ago, “Disco King,” and features a reworked cut that originally appeared in an advertisement for Vittel mineral water this past June, “Never Get Old.” Spicing up the stew, he included, in typical Bowie fashion, two surprising covers: “Try Some, Buy Some,” written by George Harrison in the early ’70s, and Jonathan Richman’s “Pablo Picasso,” which he performed with his Modern Lovers on the group’s eponymous ’76 effort.

Originally laid out in ’92, Bowie says that “Disco King,” the most overhauled track on the album, “was supposed to be a spoof on the whole disco thing from the ’70s. It was 120-beats-a-minute, very funny. But it just sounded too trite.” After attempting the song again for his ’97 album, Earthling – alternately stylized as a march, tango and samba – he brought it back to the drawing board for Reality.

He continues: “I stripped it down completely this time and just had Mike Eisler playing piano. We did it at half the tempo as the original, and now it works brilliantly. This poor little orphan Annie thing actually seems to have a home now.”

Even more remarkable is the story behind “Try Some, Buy Some,” which first surfaced on a rare ’71 Ronnie Spector Apple Records 7-inch produced by Phil Spector. Two years later, it cropped up on Harrison’s album Living in the Material World. In the midst of many recent salutes to the quiet Beatle, Bowie reveals, surprisingly, that his version of the song was not intended to be a tribute.

“I always presumed it was a Phil Spector song,” Bowie confesses. “And I always thought it was totally neglected, especially for Ronnie, because Apple was falling apart at that particular time. When I went to look at the credits, I saw that it was written by George Harrison. So, ‘OK, yeah, a tribute song!’ I’m very pleased about that, but really, that wasn’t the intention.”

Astonishingly, Bowie also admits: “I still haven’t heard the original version! I’ve really got to put that right at some point.”

As for the other cover selection, “Pablo Picasso,” Jenkins chimes in: “It’s not an obvious choice for a song to cover, but David’s version is absolutely killer. With apologies to Jonathan Richman, David’s version blows the original away.”

Bowie cleaved together these choice renditions with fresh originals like “New Killer Star,” the lead single; “She’ll Drive the Big Car,” a song about suicide; and “Never Get Old,” a “song about a petulant 56-year-old,” he says.

Despite having ushered in Grohl and Townshend on his last album, Bowie found that omitting prominent guests assuaged the Reality recording process. Some outside musicians did lend their talents, however: drummer Matt Chamberlain (Heathen, Tori Amos), fusion guitarist David Torn, backing vocalists Gail Ann Dorsey and Katherine Russell, drummer Sterling Campbell, bassist Mark Plati and keyboardist Mike Garson.

“This time, I really tried to keep it as representative as possible of what the stage thing is going to be,” he maintains. “There’s probably six tracks that will stand up to any sized arena, and two of them aren’t super-loud, either: ‘Disco King’ and ‘The Loneliest Guy’ are extremely small, minimalist pieces.”

Naturally, Reality itself began as a series of simple sketches, which Bowie brought into Looking Glass Studios, the intimate recording house located near his downtown NYC home. With Visconti on bass and a drum machine in tow, Bowie fleshed out the tunes with his own saxophone, keyboard and guitar parts. Additional musicians were invited in accordingly.

“I get up incredibly early – around 6:00 a.m. – so we’d work from around 11 in the morning through to around 7 in the evening, then I’d be able to get home and see my kid before she goes to bed.”

With a work ethic echoing that of a nine-to-five businessman, it may come as no surprise that Bowie – the first-ever rock star to incorporate himself – successfully erected his own record label, ISO, upon signing to Columbia. Reality is his second release under the joint venture between the two labels.

“I got fed up with not being able to release as many albums as I wanted to,” he candidly admits. “And I really got quite selfish about it. So when I set up the new distribution with Columbia for ISO, my label, one of the things I asked for was the freedom to release when I wanted to release. ‘Cause these days, the tendency is now two years between albums. Which is fine if you’re 20, I guess, but not when you’re 56! I’m not waiting around that long to put out my next album.”

He also hints that “this year might be a good year to make a bit of a foray into producing a roster of my own. I’m not going to be terribly ambitious, though… one or two artists will be quite sufficient.”

As far as future releases of his own go, he does have one particular idea in mind: “The one thing I can truly, seriously think about in the future that I would like to get my teeth into – it’s just so daunting – is the rest of the work that [Brian] Eno and I did when we started to do the Outside album [in ’95]. We did improv for eight days, and we had something in the area of 20 hours’ worth of stuff that I just cannot begin to get close to listening to. But there are some absolute gems in there … after we get off the road on this tour, I might bring myself to doing it. Or I’ll fail – I’ll have written another album.”

Despite having led a homespun life during the making of Reality, this fall will find Bowie scooting around the world. A massive European tour is scheduled from October 7 through November 28.

Touring, according to Bowie, will become more and more crucial to all artists in the coming years.

“It’s difficult to foresee anything other than a huge calamity in the industry itself,” he predicts. “And, as I’ve believed for a long time now, live shows will come to dominate in a new kind of way again.”

So how long will Bowie last, jaunting from arena to arena? He jests, “I can keep stumbling around the world until my legs give out, even if I am in my twilight years – ooohhh! Just look at Bobby [Dylan], baby, he’s still out there at 60. Jesus, I’d love to know what his therapist knows.”

Originally published as the cover story of ICE magazine #198 in September 2003.

If you dug this interview, you’ll probably also dig:

• “Iggy Pop: ‘I Didn’t Want To Sell Out’ The Stooges
• “Iggy Pop Transcript, 7.18.03: ‘I Was Shooting Dope At The RIAA Awards When It Wasn’t Chic’
• “The Who’s Pete Townshend: Every Young Rocker Should ‘Mark A ‘W’ On Their Arm In Blood’

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